Long, sweeping shots from the air reveal a sullen winter landscape. Frosty roads hint at a tentative incursion of humanity into this otherwise barren countryside, but otherwise the scene could be taken from a distant planet. The camera slides over the edge of a monstrous crater, fashioned by steel and steam. Pitiless machines grind away at the earth’s crust, tearing ore from the pit and dumping it into trucks, open railway gondolas or endless conveyer belts. The iron-rich rock sends plumes of steam into the frigid air and begins its journey to the smelting works. The Mesabi Range in northern Minnesota that we see in these aerial shots provides a lavish harvest for the world’s economy, but at a terrible human price.
North Country offers a stark assessment of that price. Directed by Niki Caro and written by Michael Seitzman, it is a creative adaptation of the nonfiction work Class Action: The Story of Lois Jensen and the Landmark Case That Changed Sexual Harassment Law, by Clara Bingham and Laura Reedy. Niki Caro, a native of New Zealand, first achieved recognition in the United States with “Whale Rider” (2002), a lovely fantasy about a young Maori girl (Keisha Castle-Hughes) who overcomes the opposition of the men in her clan and finally takes her rightful place as tribal chief. Both the literary source and Ms. Caro’s earlier film would lead to a logical expectation that “North Country” would be another story of female empowerment in the workplace in the tradition of “Norma Rae” (1979) or “Erin Brockovich” (2002).
It is, of course, but it is also much more than a feminist tract. In this isolated, sunless, angry world, men and women, predators and prey alike are victims.
After a survey of the territory during the opening titles, the camera moves indoors. Josey Aimes (Charlize Theron) lies unconscious on the floor of her kitchen, her eye blackened and her lip split. Once again, her companion has transferred his rage against his own failure to the mother of his daughter. Though this was not the first time, Josey resolves that it will be the last. She packs her two children into the pick-up and heads home to her parents. As she stops for gas, she glances at the back of a another pick-up, where the carcass of a fresh deer stares back at her in a kinship of brutality.
At her parents’ home, their reception holds little sympathy for her or rage against her assailant. Her father (Richard Jenkins) assumes she had provoked the assault by becoming involved with another man; her mother (Sissy Spacek) explains that men do things like this on occasion and a good woman simply endures her lot. Staying with her parents in this frosty environment is not an attractive option, but without money she has no obvious alternative.
Josey earns a few dollars by taking a minimum–wage, no-future job washing hair in the town’s threadbare beauty parlor. During her shampoo, Glory (Frances McDormand) invites her to apply for work at the iron mine. It is men’s work, but the courts have been striking down gender discrimination on the job, she explains. If she doesn’t mind getting dirty, the union scale will provide eight times her present salary, and she will be able to provide a house for her family. Glory has an inside track. Her husband suffered a serious injury at the mine a few years earlier, and even though the mine had never hired a woman before, the union brought her in to drive heavy trucks as added compensation for a disabled brother. Prospects of a job at the mine with union wages and health benefits for her family is a dream come true for Josey.
The dream soon turns into a nightmare. By doing men’s work, Josey violates the macho code of the tribe. In this world, men prove their manhood by operating the heavy equipment that alters the very shape of the earth’s crust. If “a girl” can do the same tasks, what would it say about them? In this isolated town, everyone relies on the mine for income. The mine women, 10 or so token hires at best, are vilified for taking jobs that rightly belong to men, who after all are responsible for supporting their families. Few of them have skills to look for work elsewhere. For generation after generation men have traditionally passed from high school to the mine.
All the mine women suffer the indignities of lewd comments and crude pranks, like being drenched in waste by being upended while using a portable toilet, but Josey is singled out for special abuse. As a young, attractive single mother, she is presumed to be easy sexual prey. The job-site harassment escalates from verbal abuse and groping to attempted rape and life-threatening tasks designed to make her more fearful and thus more compliant. When she files complaints, supervisors, owners and union brothers alike dismiss her as a troublemaker. The other women in the mine see her as providing the company with an excuse to fire all of them. They too need the money and urge her to keep quiet. The women in town rage at having “a whore” working in close quarters with their husbands. A denim curtain of silence falls across the union shop; no one sees anything.
The first two-thirds of the film construct a chilling portrait of the claustrophobic world of a company town that cannot cope with social change. (One sour note for me was the lengthy, obviously Catholic first Communion sequence Niki Caro inserted to indicate the rigid intolerance of the town. Rigidity turns into hypocrisy when the ladies of the parish serve a Communion supper and shred Josey’s reputation within earshot of her mother. She is, they conclude in all Christian charity, a whore.) The last third of the film falters so badly that it exposes some of the weaknesses of the earlier sequences that we might otherwise have been able to pass over.
The narrative reaches its resolution in two climactic scenes. The first consists of a raucous union meeting, where the swinish men compete with one another in voicing the most obscene epithets about the mine women and in boasting about their respective roles in putting them in their place. As the yahoos grunt on, the mine women sit together in the back row and say nothing. Frankly, it’s over the top. Their loutish behavior simply compromises the credibility of the harassment that lies at the foundation of the dramatic conflict. Have we been watching such cartoon villains all this time? Or worse, do we have Niki Caro’s elitist perspective on unschooled working men frightened about losing their jobs and their place in their families? The workers behave badly, and I have no reason to doubt that the film represents events accurately enough, but are all of them, without exception, unfeeling monsters, sexual predators, conspiring liars and sadists? The caricature casts doubt on the reality. Josey is not the only victim of the story. The miners and townspeople too are victims of their own isolation and insecurity, ignorance and fear. Perhaps they deserve a bit of sympathy for what their lives in this mining town have made of them.
The second climactic scene takes place in the courtroom. Despite the odds, Bill White (Woody Harrelson) takes Josey’s case. A hometown high-school hockey star, he broke the pattern by becoming a New York attorney, but after a failed career and a failed marriage, he returned to his roots for a new start. The trial provides the opportunity to restore his self-respect. During the trial, he browbeats his witnesses without a caution from the bench and finally, by repeating a hockey coach’s pep talk to his team, he forces an admission of guilt from an accuser. Glory reappears for a melodramatic curtain call in the courtroom after she had left the story to pursue her own subplot. It is too neat and too implausible, even within the generic conventions of courtroom dramas.
“North Country” has so much going for it that it’s a pity that it stumbled so badly in the last half hour. Both Charlize Theron and Frances McDormand turn in Oscar-worthy performances, and were it not for the brevity of her role, so does Sissy Spacek. Chris Menges, one of the top cinematographers in Hollywood, and the set designer Richard Hoover beautifully capture the bleak setting of the town and the countryside and the rumbling menace of those huge machines churning in the dank bunkers of the mine.
In many ways, this is a very fine movie, but it is not a very good sermon. The historical facts have the strength to support the worthy political conclusion. In this case, Niki Caro’s ideological fervor seems to have weakened both the history and the politics. And the movie.